Perceptions of Teenagers’ Speech in German Secondary School System: An Experimental Study


Although I never graduated from the German Gymnasium, I am a product of the three-part school system that defines the German educational landscape. I left the system after tenth grade in order to spend my last two years of high school at Rabun Gap-Nachoochee School in Georgia, USA, and earn my American High School Diploma, but I am still very intimately connected to my German heritage through strong family ties and idyllic memories about growing up in Germany. Especially as an aspiring public servant in the field of education development with an undergraduate degree in linguistics, I have greatly enjoyed conducting the present experimental study, as it has given me the opportunity to creatively revisit a part of my childhood through the investigation of the intersection between education and identity development through language.

To introduce my study, I would like to offer the following personal anecdote. On the morning of my very first bus ride to my new school in the neighboring town, I realized that my recommendation for and decision to attend Gymnasium would take me firstly into a different direction than my former classmates who were attending Realschule and Hauptschule elsewhere and secondly down a very different life path. There was much historical and social prestige attached to the type of institution that I was about to enter into, as well as high expectations for excellence and ambition. This was not true for the other types of academic schools, and the entire graduating class from our local primary school—although still very young then—seemed to be acutely aware of this special systemic aspect of our national identity. Truly, I especially sensed the segregating reality of streaming at a young age already, and this present study finally gives me the vocabulary to describe what it means for the linguistic development as well as the larger identity formation of children to be put on drastically different paths at the fragile age of 10.

This experimental study, therefore, is written for both American as well as German nonlinguists who seek to better understand the ways in which the identity formation of German teenagers is inherently tied to the type of secondary school that they end up attending, and who are willing to approach this phenomenon through the intricate and complex, yet strangely acutely honest lens of language. Undoubtedly, it is through language that we translate ourselves to the people around us in order to find and make meaning in our lives, and the words and phrases we use to convey our core message are inevitably emerging out of the social environments that we live in. In our attempts to do so, listeners’ perceptions complete the relational transaction that is human discourse. Observing such perceptions, therefore, sheds light on the reciprocal relationship between language and identity. Last but not least, the larger implication of this study presents education as a hugely influential role in this reciprocal relationship: teachers and all other actors within the expansive field of education must continually strive to foster sensitive and sophisticated language skills in their students so that they might feel accepted, supported, and empowered in their process of growing up.

To read my BA honors thesis in linguistics in its entirety, please click here. Enjoy!